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Population growth rates have shrunk more for minorities: Pew report

The report says India’s Mus­lim population has grown somewhat faster because of fertility differences
In 2020, Rashtriya Swayam­sevak Sangh (RSS) chief Moh­an Bhagwat declared that a two-child policy would be one of the organisation’s primary goals. Many criticised the proposal as an attempt to limit the growth of India’s Muslim population.

However, a report on the country’s religious composition, following a survey by the Pew Research Centre using data from the Census and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), says that population growth rates have declined for all of India’s major religious groups, but the slowdown has been more pron­ounced among religious minorities, which outpaced Hindus in earlier decades.

The survey also says India’s religious composition has rem­ained unchanged, by and large, barring the Northeast. Between 2001 and 2011, in the Northeast, Christians grew as a percentage of the state’s population. Their share rose in Arun­achal Pradesh by 12 percentage points (to 30 per cent), in Mani­pur by 7 points (to 41 per cent), in Meghalaya by 4 points (75 per cent) and in Sik­kim by 3 points (10 per cent). The share of Chris­t­ians in Nagaland fell slightly, though they remain­ed in the overwhelming majority. Hindus also had their biggest percentage point changes in the sparsely populated Northeast, declining by 3 points or more in Arunachal Pradesh (down 6 percentage points to 29 per cent), Manipur (-5 points to 41 per cent), Assam (-3 points to 61 per cent) and Sikkim (-3 points to 58 per cent). Muslims, too, experienced their biggest change in the Northeast, in Assam (+3 points to 34 per cent).

The report says religious com­position of the population can change because of three reasons: fertility rates, migration and conversion. While conversion has been a negligible reason, fertility and migration have been mainly responsible for the change in trends.

The report says India’s Mus­lim population has grown somewhat faster because of fertility differences. But due, in part, to declining and converging fertility patt­erns, there have been only mod­est changes in the overall re­ligious makeup of the population since 1951, when independent India conducted its first Cen­s­us. Even here, the gap has na­r­r­owed. Between 1951 and 1961, the Muslim population expanded by 32.7 per cent, 11 percentage poi­nts more than India’s overall rate of 21.6 per cent. But from 2001 to 2011, the difference in growth between Muslims (24.7 per cent) and Indians overall (17.7 per cent) was 7 percentage points.

India’s Christian population grew at the slowest pace of the three largest groups in the most recent Census decade — gaining 15.7 per cent between 2001 and 2011, a far lower growth rate than the one recorded in the decade fo­llowing Partition (29.0 per cent).

The report says migration can cause religious groups to shrink or expand. But, it finds that since the 1950s, migration has had only a modest impact on India’s religious composition. More than 99 per cent of people who live in India were also born here. Migrants leaving India outnumber immigrants three-to-one, and religious minorities are more likely than Hindus to leave.

The report finds that religious switching, or conversion — when an individual leaves one religion for another or stops affiliating with any religion — also appears to have had a relatively small impact on India’s overall composition, with 98 per cent of Indian adults still identifying with the religion in which they were raised. Here it adds a caveat: Dalits (Hindus, Muslims and Chr­istians), who might have cha­nged religions or become Budd­hists, are undercounted because their recorded response in surveys is to register as Hindus, for this gives them access to many affirmative action benefits such as reservation.

The report cites the recently passed Citizenship (Amend­ment) Act and points out that people who come to India either as refugees or as undocumented immigrants often are from nearby countries, and in recent years, speculation has circulated that up to tens of millions of Muslims have moved from Bangladesh and other neigh­bo­ur­ing countries to live illegally in India. “The sources and methodologies behind such high estim­ates are unclear, and reliable estimates of undocumented people are difficult to come by. But if tens of millions of Muslims from nearby countries had indeed migrated to India, demographers would expect to see evidence of such mass emigration in data from their countries of origin, and this magnitude of outmigration is not apparent,” says the report.

In terms of projecting future trends on the basis of Census data, fertility and migration trends, the report says as of 2020 about 15 per cent of Indians are Muslim (versus 14.2 per cent in the 2011 Census), 79 per cent are Hindu (versus 79.8 per cent in 2011), and 2 per cent are Christian (in line with 2011).

In 2050, Hindus are projected to represent about 77 per cent of Indians, Muslims 18 per cent and Christians still 2 per cent. Budd­hists, Sikhs and Jains all have fertility rates well below the national average and are, therefore, projected to shrink as a share of the population.

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